The Royal Irish Academy/Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann champions research. We identify and recognise Ireland’s world class researchers. We support scholarship and promote awareness of how science and the humanities enrich our lives and benefit society. We believe that good research needs to be promoted, sustained and communicated. The Academy is run by a Council of its members. Membership is by election and considered the highest academic honour in Ireland.

Read more about the RIA

DIB Explorers: William Lamport, inspiration for Zorro

23 July 2020

Our next DIB explorer is William Lamport, who worked as a spy in Italy and Catalonia and plotted to seize control of Mexico City with a militia of indigenous mine workers.

William Lamport

by Terry Clavin

Lamport, William (1611?–1659), adventurer, was baptised in Wexford town, Co. Wexford, soon after his birth, which was probably on 25 February 1611, though he later claimed it occurred up to four years later. He was the youngest of four children of Richard Lamport, a ship's pilot of Wexford town, and his wife Allison (née Sutton); there may have been other siblings that either did not survive childhood or were from his father's previous marriage. His merchant family was closely linked by birth and marriage to Wexford's Old English gentry. Several of his relations were likely involved through their trading activities in providing intelligence to the Spanish government.

As his mother died when he was young and his father was regularly at sea, William's relatives raised him in Wexford. An intelligent, headstrong youth, he was educated by catholic clergy in Wexford town before being sent in 1626 to study in Dublin, first with the Franciscans in a private residence in High Street and then in the Jesuit college in Back Lane. He briefly studied law in London c.1627, receiving tuition there from catholic clergy while also attending public lectures in Gresham College. Departing London amid a bout of anti-catholic persecution, he possibly spent time aboard a pirate ship, extracurricular piracy being common among Wexford's seafaring families.

He joined the Irish émigré community in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where the local magnate Pedro de Toledo y Leiva, marquis of Mancera, arranged a scholarship for him in the Irish secondary school in Santiago in November 1629. He shaved two years off his age and claimed noble origins, styling himself Don Guillén Lombardo. Around 1632 he was introduced to the king of Spain's chief minister, Gaspar de Guzmán, count-duke of Olivares, who arranged a place for him in the Colegio de San Lorenzo at the Escorial, which trained elite crown officials. Also studying nearby in the Colegio Imperial de Madrid, he mastered various languages and developed an expertise in law and military science, becoming known to King Philip IV as one of Olivares's most academically distinguished protégés. Based for most of the 1630s in either Madrid or the Escorial, he wrote propaganda and briefing papers for Olivares as well as poetry flattering important figures in the royal court.

According to his own subsequent testimony, he spied for Olivares in Italy and Catalonia; participated in crucial Spanish military victories at Nördlingen in Germany (1634) and at Fuenterrabía in the Basque country (1638); and was assigned in 1636 to the royal council responsible for awarding titles, viceroyalties and pensions. While Lamport was in Brussels in 1635, one of Anthony van Dyck's apprentices drew a preliminary sketch of him with his teacher, the famed mathematician and military engineer, Jean Charles de la Faille, which hangs in the Szépmëvészeti Múzeum, Budapest. The intended double portrait by van Dyck was never completed. In the late 1630s he fathered a daughter, Teresa, with his paramour Ana de Cano y Leiva. He did not marry Ana, despite the disapproval of his brother John, a Franciscan priest based in Spain. (Another brother, Gerald, was an officer in the Imperial army in Germany.)

During 1639 he assisted a group of Irish clergy and nobles seeking Spanish support for a catholic uprising in Ireland. They intended concealing their preparations by pretending to recruit soldiers in Ireland for the Spanish army. Lamport was authorised to raise 2,400 Irish soldiers (September 1639) and given charge of preparations in various northern Spanish ports (January 1640) before Olivares lost interest. Instead on 21 April 1640 Lamport set sail from Cadiz for Mexico in the fleet carrying the viceroy of New Spain, Diego López Pacheco, marquis of Villena. Lamport left Ana and Teresa behind.

Ostensibly travelling in a private capacity, he was to inform Olivares of events in Mexico where the Spanish descended settlers (criollos) were growing restive under the heavy-handed rule of royal officials with no local roots. He served briefly as a government surveyor before being employed in Mexico City as tutor for the sons of Fernando Carrillo, a wealthy criollo prominent in recent protests over Madrid-imposed tax and trade policies. Lamport moved in elite criollo circles and courted a rancher's daughter. Always interested in forbidden knowledge, he began casting horoscopes after befriending a local astrologer.

For money and gifts he fed information to another newly arrived client of Olivares, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, bishop of Puebla de los Ángeles, who sought to reform the corruptly administered viceroyalty in alliance with the criollos. The outbreak of a successful rebellion in Portugal in 1640 undermined Villena because he was related to its leader and because he favoured a clique of Portuguese merchants in Mexico. Lamport seemingly sent a report to Olivares in November 1641 condemning Villena's government, though he also wrote drafts praising him. When Villena was removed as viceroy and succeeded by Palafox (on a caretaker basis) in June 1642, Lamport offered his services to both men. They were polite, but non-committal. Palafox denied his request for a military command.

Rightly anticipating Olivares' imminent dismissal, wrongly anticipating the Spanish empire's imminent dissolution, he plotted seizing control of Mexico City with a forged royal authorisation backed by a militia composed of indigenous mine workers. This plan derived partly from his work that year helping an indigenous petitioner, Ignacio Pérez, prepare a legal brief outlining abuses suffered by miners in the Taxco region. He aimed at becoming king of Mexico and in readiness for this told acquaintances that he was Philip IV's illegitimate brother. As his behaviour became more eccentric, he tried to divine the future by prevailing upon Pérez to take a mind-altering drug, peyote, which was forbidden to Europeans, but not to natives.

During autumn 1642 his boasts made his plans common knowledge among his neighbours. One of them informed a royal judge who was reluctant to act, given Lamport's political connections. It was safer to denounce Lamport to the Mexican Inquisition over his dabbling in astrology and peyote. The Inquisition arrested him in late October on a charge of engaging in demonical communication for treasonous purposes. Linking sedition with sorcery allowed the Inquisition to claim jurisdiction over what should have been a civil case.

A search of his papers uncovered an elaborate scheme for overthrowing Spanish colonial rule and reigning as a popularly endorsed constitutional monarch. His manifesto affirmed racial equality and the people's right to rebel against tyrannical governments while pledging to free those African slaves and forced indigenous labourers who rose up on his behalf. Different historians have cast him as a radical visionary, an opportunist, a fantasist and a loyal subject framed by political enemies. Under interrogation he gave a vainglorious, quasi-fictitious account of his life, stressed his high standing with the king and upbraided the Inquisition for interfering with royal business, claiming that he had feigned a conspiracy in order to infiltrate seditious cabals. The inquisitors proceeded warily, doing little to investigate the extent of his plot, perhaps because it existed mainly in his head.

In 1643 the king requested that the Mexican Inquisition expedite Lamport's transfer to the secular authorities by prosecuting him swiftly for his minor religious transgressions. The inquisitors objected, citing the need for authorisation from the Council of the Supreme Inquisition (Suprema) in Madrid. Thereafter his prosecution was postponed indefinitely through referrals to the Suprema and opportune discoveries of new evidence. The inquisitors may have been protecting powerful local interests, not least their own: his papers included censures of the Inquisition's grasping motives for arresting seventy wealthy merchants of Jewish descent (conversos) on charges of crypto-Judaism in summer 1642. There was a flurry of activity in 1645 when the inquisitors, then at loggerheads with Palafox, probed Lamport fruitlessly for information against the bishop. Otherwise he languished, forgotten in captivity. He shared the Inquisition prison mostly with conversos, some of whom had been covertly practising their ancestral faith; after quarrelling with them at first, he came to sympathise with their plight.

Never a cooperative prisoner, he escaped on 26 December 1650, probably with the connivance of the Inquisition, which wanted him to incriminate himself further. Before being recaptured, however, he plastered the city walls at night with posters denouncing the injustices and extortions of the inquisitors. He also smuggled a letter to the viceroy that more soberly critiqued the Inquisition and included detailed proposals for reforming the viceroyalty and encouraging commerce. On foot of this, the Suprema ordered an investigation into the Mexican Inquisition's activities and demanded better treatment for him.

The investigator sent by the Suprema, Pedro Medina Rico, was keen on reform, but also wanted to protect the Inquisition's reputation. He was unsympathetic towards Lamport who continued to suffer neglect, though he was never tortured. In December 1654 the inquisitors discovered that Lamport had written 918 psalms as well as some hymns and poems on his bed sheets in Latin. Exemplifying his classical learning, idiosyncratic religiosity, megalomania, idealism, hatred for the Inquisition and sympathy for slaves, native Americans and Jews, these writings covered 234 folios when transcribed and were adjudged spuriously to contain evidence of protestantism and crypto-Judaism. Latterly, he succumbed to madness, engaging in fasts, self-mortifications and dirty protests. His fulminations against the Inquisition, refusal to genuflect before altars and denial of the pope's temporal authority helped his captors accumulate 228 charges of heresy against him.

Condemning him to burn was controversial, nonetheless. The sentence passed only because one of the inquisitors was pressured into changing his vote while regulations requiring all executions to be referred to the Suprema for ratification were ignored. Refusing to admit heresy, Lamport went stoically to his death, amid pomp and celebrations, in a spectacular auto-de-fé staged in Mexico City's main square on 19 November 1659. An eyewitness account states that he threw himself off the pyre and was strangled by the iron collar put around his neck before the flames reached him. Medina Rico's lengthy investigation subsequently yielded 175 indictments, which ended the Mexican Inquisition's worst abuses, though the wrongdoers so exposed received light punishments.

Known in Mexico as Guillén de Lampart, he emerged from obscurity when the Mexican liberal politician Vicente Riva Palacio wrote a historical novel about him, Memorias de un impostor (1872). Other liberals then vaunted him as a forerunner of independence, but Lamport's association with anti-clericalism dashed his prospects of becoming a popularly revered nationalist martyr. In 1910 a statue of him being burnt at the stake was placed inconspicuously in the mausoleum below the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City. Interest in him revived again in the late 1990s amid overblown speculation that Riva Palacio's novel inspired Johnston McCulley's creation of the enduringly popular swashbuckler, Zorro, in 1919.

Sources: Gerard Ronan, 'Zorro of Wexford', The past: the organ of Uí Cinsealaigh historical society, no. 22 (2000), 3–50; Fabio Troncarelli, 'The man behind the mask of Zorro', History Ireland, vol. 9, issue 3 (autumn 2001), 22–5; Gerard Ronan, 'The Irish Zorro': the extraordinary adventures of William Lamport (1615–1659) (2004); Cayetana Alvarez de Toledo, Politics and reform in Spain and Viceregal Mexico: the life and thought of Juan de Palafox 1600–1659 (2004); ODNB, 'William Lamport'; Andrew Laird, The epic of America (2006); Fabio Troncarelli and Igor Pérez Tostado, 'A plot without “capriccio”: Irish utopia and political activity in Madrid, 1639–40', Declan M. Downey and Julio Crespo MacLennan (eds.), Spanish–Irish relations through the ages (2008), 123–36; Ryan Dominic Crewe, 'Brave New Spain: an Irishman's independence plot in 17th century Mexico', Past and present, no. 207 (May 2010), 53–87; Kimberley Lynn, Between court and confessional: the politics of Spanish Inquisitors (2013); Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, I speak of the city: Mexico City at the turn of the twentieth century (2015); Thomas O'Connor, Irish voices from the Spanish Inquisition: migrants, converts and brokers in early modern Iberia (2016)

Image: Peter Paul Rubens, 'Young man in armor' (c.1620). The man in the painting is reputed to be William Lamport

A new entry, added to the DIB online, December 2019

Fan ar an eolas le nuachtlitir Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann

Sign up now